The most succinct summing up of Mother Teresa’s life and work remains, in my view, by the Chairman of the Nobel Committee Prof. John Sannes, in his speech at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo in 1979. He said: “The hallmark of her work has been respect for the individual and the individual’s worth and dignity. The loneliest and the most wretched, the dying destitute, the abandoned lepers, have all been received by her and her Sisters with warm compassion devoid of condescension, based on her reverence for Christ in man ... In her eyes, the person who, in the accepted sense, is the recipient, is also the giver and the one who gives the most, Giving — giving something of oneself — is what confers real joy, and the person who is allowed to give is the one who receives the most precious gift ... This is the life of Mother Teresa and her Sisters — a life of strict poverty and long days and nights of toil, a life that affords little room for other joys but the most precious.”
After the Award ceremony, typically, she refused the traditional banquet and instead asked the organisers to give her the money thus saved to feed ‘her poor’. People were so moved by this simple gesture that even little children contributed their pocket money. In the process, she collected almost twice the Prize money. Clearly Mother Teresa was by now recognised as the world’s foremost conscience keeper.
This was a far cry from her early days. For almost 20 years, from 1929 to 1948, she remained an ordinary Loreto nun, teaching geography and catechism. Then on her famous train ride to Darjeeling in 1946, she received a Vision, an order as it were, that she was to leave the security and happiness of the Convent, and step into Calcutta’s streets and slums to begin the ‘real work’. In those days it was inconceivable for a simple nun, albeit by now the Principal of St. Mary’s school to leave her convent, and that too with her vows intact. It seemed absurd to even try to secure permission. Yet, in one of those many miracles that marked her life, her voice reached the Vatican itself. Two years of prayers and persistence paid off when the Vatican gave her the permission to try.
The next two years were those of great hardship. Imagine the Kolkata of 1948. The city which had not yet recovered from the Great Bengal Famine of 1941-42, when almost four million died and millions were rendered homeless. This was closely followed by the trauma of Partition which saw a million refugees additionally crowding every inch of space. Into this horror of deprivation stepped a small figure wearing a sari that cost a rupee, similar to those worn by the municipal sweepresses.
She had no companion, no helper and no money to speak of. She had so far lived a secure life in the Convent and knew nothing of a large city’s dangers. Although a voice in her cajoled her to return to the security of her convent, she instead stepped into the very slum that she used to see from her classroom window.
She picked up a stick and started to write the Bengali alphabet on the ground. Soon a few curious children gathered, and a few more the next day. People recognised goodness when they saw it, someone donated a chair, then a blackboard and chalk. A few teachers began to volunteer their services, and soon her first school became a reality. Then, seeing so many sick around her, she began to beg for medicines from chemists, and was able to set up a tiny clinic.
She walked miles each day till her body ached. She encountered humiliation. More than once she was to tell me that for us human beings the greatest fear is the fear of humiliation. In those early days of deprivation, she learned the lessons of being rejected, but also the generosity of spirit and goodness. She came to know that the very poor could more easily share their meagre bowls of rice than the rich, who were often reluctant to share at all.
Within a few months, some of her Loreto pupils came out to join her Order, the Missionaries of Charity. Soon her little band of Sisters grew to 12. Now they began to be noticed, as they walked in pairs in their trademark white saris with blue borders. One of her earliest supporters was Dr. B.C. Roy, the legendary Chief Minister of West Bengal. In later years, the equally legendary Jyoti Basu lent her his shoulder. In the course of writing my biography of Mother Teresa, I asked him what he, a Communist and atheist, could possibly have in common with Mother Teresa, for whom God was everything. He replied: “We both share a love for the poor.”
By the time Mother Teresa died in 1997, she had set up arguably the world’s largest humanitarian programme outside of a Government. She established a presence in 123 countries, creating hundreds of feeding centres, medical clinics, leprosy stations, AIDS hospices, primary schools, Shishu Bhawans for abandoned infants and shelters for the elderly destitute that benefited millions.
Nor were all these in the poorer parts of the world. She opened hundreds of shelters in Europe, America and Australia for drug addicts, alcoholics and the destitute. She called the loneliness of Europe’s large cities the “leprosy of the West”. I visited her homes for those dying of AIDS in the United States, and met with elderly cast-offs in her centres in Europe.
I walked with her Sisters on a cold and wintry night under London’s Waterloo Bridge, providing hot soup to people whose only home was a cardboard box the size of a coffin. I spent time in the soup kitchen in the Vatican, which she had persuaded Pope John Paul II to carve out near his grand Audience Chamber by persuading him that Rome’s poor deserved at least one hot meal a day. Later, she would joke that her poor were the only people who could enter St. Peter’s without a ticket!
But wherever she went in the world, visiting her ashrams, and however much she pushed herself in spite of her growing pain, it was to her beloved Kolkata that she would long to return. Ultimately, it was in her little room in Motherhouse that she died, and lies buried in a simple grave in Motherhouse itself, which bears the epitaph. “Love one another as I have loved you.”
(Navin Chawla is a former Chief Election Commissioner of India and biographer of Mother Teresa. Today he commemorates Mother Teresa’s 102nd birth anniversary.)